The Dirty South

Friday, October 12, 2012


Lee Atwater became one of the most complicated and successful Republican political operatives in history by employing a triple threat: spin when you can, change the subject when you can’t, and if all else fails, appeal to the voters’ resentment and fear, usually of African-Americans. In this conversation from 2008, Brooke talks to Stefan Forbes, director of "Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story", about the dark legacy of Atwater’s Southern strategy.

Kenneth Sandford - When All Night Long a Chap Remains


Stephen Forbes

Hosted by:

Brooke Gladstone

Comments [11]

Mark Richard from Columbus OH

To Jack Jackson, news organizations, including Fox, pick and choose what is 'news'. The latest Lee Atwater piece, above, never said anything that was 'factually' wrong - that's not the complaint. The complaint is the omission of context. If you exclude the race-politics practiced by Atwater's opponents, you are giving a very distorted impression to the impressionable. Some of the posters below presented facts, too - facts that the mainstream media doesn't get around to providing when it is talking about Lee Atwater. The facts presented by Stephen and myself are seldom mentioned by critics of Atwater, and OTM should be ashamed for acting as an unquesioning transmission belt for partisan assertions and framing when those assertions and that framing are anti-Republican. I'll give OTM props for having a comment thread so that its stories can be criticized and corrected.

Oct. 23 2012 01:01 PM
Jack Jackson from Central New Jersey

Double standard on NPR? Some times. Fair and balanced on FoxNews? Hardly ever.

Cherry-picked evidence? There were no facts presented in this piece that were refuted by any of the comments on this page so why should norishman spend any time at all responding?

My evidence of the bizarroland winger-verse have some work to do to true up their worldview with reality?

1. Obama was referring to small business owners when he said ' didn't build that...'
2. Terry Schiavo wanted to live.
3. Human activity has nothing to do with global climate change.
4. ObamaCare is a government take over of health care.
5. Richard Nixon was not a crook.
6. Obama is not an American.
7. Lying about a sexual liaison is a 'high crime and misdemeanor' deserving impeachment.
8. George W. Bush did not double the national debt.
9. Iraq had WMD and was a threat to the U.S.A.
10. Obama is a socialist.
11. The President never said '...act of terror...'.

Was Lee Atwater an SOB? Sure was. Are there DNC operatives who would pull the same garbage? You betcha. Too many. It's wrong in both cases.

Oct. 21 2012 03:29 PM
Mark Richard from Columbus OH

To norishman, yes, some of us do see a double standard that public radio denies it exercises. So we call it out, as interested consumers should do. Your problem with that is . . . ? The double standard is exercised in a fairly transparently partisan manner, so we call that out, too. I don't mind journalists being tough on 'conservatives' or Republicans. What I don't see is comparable rigorous scrutiny of the other side.

The 'principles' professed by the people who get lathered up about Lee Atwater are undermined if they are cherry-picked in a partisan manner, don't you agree? None of the factual narrative cited by what you call 'the conservative police' have been challenged by anyone on this thread, so what's the problem?

Oct. 18 2012 05:11 PM

It's really fascinating to me that the "conservative police" commenting below have descended upon your site to 1) justify Atwater's tactics because "the other side does it too", and 2) accuse you of "liberal bias" for simply bringing Atwater's tactics up and examining them from OTM's perspective in the first place. Atwater would be proud. It doesn't matter that you all have a right to your own take on Atwater's behavior and career. We get that it's not their take. Hard ball political tactics have be part and parcel of election campaigns ever since elections were invented by human beings. Even so, the utilitarian cynicism of people who are perfectly comfortable in using them is revolting to anyone with a healthy conscience. Of course that's why people with a healthy conscience tend to avoid public service altogether.

Oct. 18 2012 04:54 PM
Mark Richard from Columbus OH

To Richard from Dallas, your post is based on an urban legend. Atwater, on his deathbed, apologized if he had offended anyone, but not for any particular episode of smash-mouth politics. It was the sort of thing someone says on their deathbed.

Your post would be more effective if you were able to challenge the particulars cited by the critics of this story, but you couldn't and didn't. The criticisms of the mythology of 'Willie Horton' as represented in the culture of mainstream political journalism still stand - the obsession is yet another illustration of the narrow partisan lens through which most journalists view American politics, and helps explain why the establishment press has documentably lost credibility with consumers over the past two or three decades.

Oct. 18 2012 12:58 PM
Richard from Dallas, TX

Funny how even Lee Atwater knew what he had done was fundamentally different than what had been done on our national political stage in recent times and could see the damage he had done to our political discourse and admitted it and apologized for it, but somehow many on the right still won't admit it and refuse to acknowledge it. Oh well. What can we reasonably expect from folks who love their own party and their own money far more than they do their own country?

Oct. 17 2012 01:25 AM
Stephen Grubaugh from Arlington, MA

As proof that the 1988 Bush campaign was “the most racist presidential campaign in 150 years” you offered the “Willie Horton” ad. I have multiple problems with this claim.
1. The Massachusetts prisoner furlough program was a very legitimate issue to discuss as Michael Dukakis ran for President. As a result of a court ruling a Massachusetts furlough program became unique in the nation in that it had to includ prisoners who were sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Gov. Dukakis vetoed an attempt by the legislature to fix this problem. A local paper, the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune ran 175 stories about problems with the furlough program and won a Pulitzer Prize. As a result of this investigation, the legislature was finally able to change the program over the objections of Gov. Dukakis in April, 1988.

2. The Bush campaign was not alone in feeling the furlough program was an issue. The first person to mention the Massachusetts furlough program in the 1988 presidential campaign was Al Gore. During a debate at the Felt Forum sponsored by the New York Daily News. It is true that Gore did not personalize the issue by mentioning Willie Horton. Clearly, however, what happened when Willie Horton was released was a legitimate illustration of the obvious dangers of this program.
3. The evidence that this was really racial in nature is the so-called Willie Horton ad. This ad was produced by an outside group (National Security Political Action committee, NSPAC) that by law must be independent of the campaign. This ad was the only evidence you presented in your entire segment that in any way supported the claim that Atwater exploited fear of black people or that the Bush campaign in 1988 was the most racist in 150 years. Don’t you think as a “journalist” you should have at least asked Mr. Forbes about the campaign claim that they had no role in its production or distribution? While one can always question how independent these independent PACs are, you rested your claims of racism only on this ad that the Bush campaign says they had nothing to do with.
4. The ad you actually used in your discussion is the only ad that the Bush campaign did produce about the furlough program. However, it in no way advances your case that the Bush campaign was racist. The “Revolving Door” ad actually produced by the Bush campaign never mentions Willie Horton nor does it show his picture. The “convicts” depicted in this ad were overwhelmingly Caucasian.

I'm disapointed that NPR was associated with such a shoddy piece of journalism.

Oct. 15 2012 06:18 PM
Mark Richard from Columbus OH

Boy, the Democratic-leaning media sure can't get over Lee Atwater! It's not as though both parties don't play 'race politics' - just four years after 'Willie Horton', candidate Bill Clinton went off the stump to go back to Arkansas to be in the state for the execution of a retarded black man named Ricky Ray Rector. Far more cynical than anything Lee Atwater did. In fact, Atwater had never heard of Willie Horton until Al Gore raised the issue against Dukakis in the '88 Democratic primaries. But once the MSM has decided on its 'progressive' narrative, it sticks to it, no matter what. It doesn't 'do' complexity very well.

It is impossible to raise domestic political issues that cover a lot of ground in American civic life, and then question the dumb, frozen liberal orthodoxy circa 1967, without getting accused of 'racism' by the Democrats and the MSM. It's an obsession of the chattering classes. Maybe a function of their own guilt feelings?

In the real world, I'm intrigued at how many virtuously anti-racist white people nevertheless find themselves in almost African-American-free communities (cities like Boulder, states like Vermont), concerts (who sees AAs at a Bruce Springsteen or Ani DiFranco show?), or rallies (environmentalist, abortion rights, same-sex marriage), or read very 'white' publications like The New Yorker or Mother Jones or The New Republic . . . some readers will recognize what I'm talking about. Are these nice people 'racist'? Well, no, but . . . Lee Atwater's circle of friendships was more racially integrated than the above gatherings.

Oct. 15 2012 05:05 PM

It is amusing to hear OTM broadcast frequent segments proclaiming, “What liberal bias? Who? Us? Liberal bias? Don’t be absurd!” Then, a few weeks later, a segment like this, as well as this week's entire program, are broadcast.

Obviously, most listeners to NPR will agree. This is not liberal bias. This is the TRUTH, for God’s sake! It never occurs to them that listeners to Rush Limbaugh’s similarly sincere broadcasts are likewise unaware of any bias. He’s simply telling the truth!

Of course, the completely unbiased OTM staff somehow neglects to make any mention of the Priorities USA Action ad which charges Bain Capital for being responsible for the death of the wife of Joe Scoptic. Neither is there any mention of the Obama ad proclaiming that in Gov. Mitt Romney’s first budget in Massachusetts, "he cut $248.7 million from K-12 education."

No. Of course not! Anyone who listens to OTM knows that only Republicans run deceptive ads.

What liberal bias?

Oct. 14 2012 08:39 PM
Nancy from Rural Ontario

Thank you so much for invaluable information and context.

Oct. 14 2012 09:10 AM

There has been a over a century of dirty politics in the Democratic Party machine South and Chicago which continues to this day with the current election but Republican Lee Atwater is the campfire ghost story that is told and retold in the media.
There are far more admiring cries of congratulations than demands for repentance from the media today regarding Democratic Party deception, skulduggery and Machiavellian tactics which have been played out before us in recent years in Congress and this administration.

Oct. 12 2012 09:41 PM

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